Tonya Young -- Manhattan World Trade Center survivor September 11, 2001

Tonya Young -- witness, survivor: Part 2
World Trade Center disaster 9/11/2001

Part 1

We didn't have to wait too long before a ferry arrived. We made it on and walked up the stairs to the top. We sat on the west side of the ferry. It wasn't long before I heard people opening the seats to pull out life jackets. We did the same. I was really nervous that there would be too many people on the ferry and we wouldn't be able to make it across without capsizing. I was also still nervous that anywhere I was, was a target. One of the girls with us had a Walkman and told us that 2 WTC had just collapsed. We looked out the window and could see a huge cloud heading our way from the fall.

People started jumping up to look out the window on the side of the boat where I was. I was really upset that they would make the ferry fall over. I didn't want to look. All I could do was sit there and pray and be as still as possible. There were some people fighting over life jackets and other people yelling at people to sit down. We had opened the windows when we boarded, but had to close them because the cloud was starting to reach the ferry. We had seen a lot of people standing at the very edge of Battery Park, against the rail by the water. When the cloud of debris started toward us I heard someone say that people at the rails jumped into the river. There was speculation that they did it because they didn't know it was from the building falling, that they must have thought another plane had hit close by. I did not see anyone jump in the river because I just wanted to sit and be as still as possible, so I don't know if that really happened. But, I knew that was my thought earlier and wouldn't have been surprised if that had been the choice of others.

Pretty soon, the ferry was completely covered in the debris cloud and we couldn't see a thing out the windows. I was then concerned that we wouldn't be able to leave the dock because the captain wouldn't be able to see. I thought we were just sitting there when one of the girls told me she could feel we were moving. I couldn't tell so wasn't sure. Once we were getting about halfway, it started to clear up and was completely clear as we went by the Statue of Liberty. I felt better then since we were making it across and I was getting off the island. We had already heard that the bridges and tunnels were closed, so we didn't expect to be able to get into Jersey by car. We got to Staten Island just as 1 WTC was falling. I didn't want to see it, so I tried not to look back.

We walked across the street from the ferry station and waited for Sherry's uncle, George, to come pick us up. Sherry saw another girl she knew who had 3 people and a baby with her. We wound up being a group of 8 and a baby that Sherry's uncle picked up and took to his house. I was given some medical supplies to wash my knees with and changed into my gym clothes since I had them with me. George and one of his neighbors went to get pizza and cookies for all of us while we all tried to relax, call our families, and watch TV.

It felt good to be somewhere where I felt relatively safe. I calmed down and composed myself. I was finally able to get through to my dad, but when I talked to him it all came back. I was really crying again and my dad was beside himself too. "I want to go home," I cried to him. I still had friends I needed to call, but I wanted to save my cell phone for the trip to Jersey if I needed it and my cell phone was still in and out of service.

We had been watching TV all day for updates on not just what was happening, but also for updates on the bridges to see if we would be able to leave Staten Island that day. All I wanted to do that morning was get off Manhattan. Now all I wanted to do was get off Staten Island and get home. We began hearing the Staten Island bridges had been opened to outgoing traffic, not incoming. We also knew people were walking across them to get to where they needed to be.

Around 5:30 we decided to leave and walk across the Bayonne Bridge into Jersey. We had to go through a security checkpoint before being allowed to walk the bridge. They checked our bags and bodies. I think it took us about 25 or 30 minutes to walk across. I was still wearing my dress shoes because I had given my sneakers away that morning. My feet had blisters, but I just wanted to get home. There were a few adults and kids handing out little bottles of water and an ambulance on the Jersey side of the bridge. I was hoping we would be able to call for cabs in Bayonne to come pick us up because that would have been the easiest thing. I tried calling my cab company in Hoboken, but could not get through.

NJ Light Rail - click to zoom in  
We had originally planned to try to walk to the Bayonne light rail that would take us to Jersey City where we could catch the PATH train that would take us to Hoboken or where others going further into Jersey could be picked up. Someone told us that the light rail was not in use for the public because it was being used to transport medical supplies and bodies. We were then told we could catch a bus at the next block to get to Journal Square, where there is a PATH station. I wasn't exactly thrilled about that because I knew the trains running through Journal Square do not go through Hoboken unless it's the night schedule, which it was still too early to be. Sherry's husband had made it home to Hoboken earlier that day so he was coming to Journal Square to pick her up. I asked if they would give me a ride to Hoboken, and they did. The others went on to the PATH station. I finally got home around 7:30 that night and started the process of calling family and friends.

I could not sleep in my bed for the rest of that week because my bedroom faced the city. I could see the smoke above lower Manhattan and all of the bright lights from the digging operation. I slept on my couch in the living room which was the middle of my apartment. I felt safer being away from the windows. I would wait until I felt totally exhausted before trying to go to sleep because I wanted to avoid the nightmares about what I had experienced. The first few days I slept maybe 4 or 5 hours at a time. I would go to bed around 2 and wake up around 6 or 7. I was able to take a nap a couple of days, too. I started getting back to a normal sleep pattern when I started sleeping in my bed again. I wouldn't leave my apartment for days, not even to run downstairs and check the mail. I think I finally went to check the mail Thursday night.

My best friend, Hoyt, came by Friday to get me out of the building and run a few errands with me in Hoboken. Saturday several of my friends came to Hoboken to see for sure that I was OK because they knew I was having a difficult time. We all went to lunch in Hoboken. I felt bad for trying to have a normal day when I knew that so many people close by didn't know where their loved ones were and if they were even alive. I also noticed 2 fighter jets flying back and forth overhead. That was just another thing to "freak me out" even though my friends thought they were keeping the skies safe. For me, the fighter planes made it worse. It is not supposed to be that way, where they have to have planes to shoot something down that is trying to get you.

I had to start back at work the next Monday, and Hoyt walked me to and from work in midtown for a few days. His department had still not started back to work, and I felt bad for making him get up early and come back to the city to get me. He promised he didn't mind. After a few days, I told him he didn't have to do it anymore, because I would have to be able to do it by myself soon. I already had vacation scheduled for the next week, and I decided to go ahead and take it.

I never went back to work at Lehman. I asked to be transferred to another city, preferably in Texas, but when Lehman Brothers said no, I quit my job. My mom and dad took some time off from work and helped move me, first back to Benton, Arkansas (near Little Rock) with them for a month, and then onward to Austin, Texas. I had a great group of friends in New York, and at the end, it was hard to go. These guys love me and I love them. I called my mom and cried, "I don't know if I should leave. There are good things here." My mom is a teacher and she stepped right in. "I don't think you are in the position to make this decision, so I am going to make it for you," she said.

It was extremely hard to leave my friends, but not so hard to leave a position I did not enjoy and had wanted to change for several months. I am very thankful that I was qualified to receive Disaster Unemployment Assistance until I could get settled somewhere else and find a new job.

In Austin, people don't really understand what I've been through, which is probably better. I really hate sitting down and telling people the gruesome story. Who wants to hear about all those body parts? What do you say when someone tells you a story like that? I feel awkward and it makes the people I am talking to feel awkward. So I just say, "I moved here from New York." And as time passes, and people think less about September 11th, that just becomes part of normal conversation. If someone really wants to know why I moved from New York, I can refer them to this web page, and I do not have to talk about it.

Dad's story:

It didn't seem like I had been asleep very long when I heard the phone ringing. I work nights and sleep during the day. It seems that most daytime calls are sales calls and wrong numbers, so I usually just let people leave a message on the machine. I tried to go back to sleep, but the phone rang again. OK, somebody must really want to talk to me, so I answered the phone. It was my younger daughter, Stephanie Hill.

"Dad, doesn't Tonya work on Park Avenue?" "She did for a while, but she works back downtown near the financial district now." "Are you sure", she asked. "Pretty sure." I heard a sob from Stephanie. "What's wrong?" I asked. A plane hit the World Trade Center, it's on fire, and people died. Have you heard from Tonya?"

"No, but whenever something happens the phones get overloaded and nobody can use the phones. I am sure she will call us when she can, but it may be a while."

As soon as I hung up, the phone rang again. The caller ID showed Tonya's cell phone. I picked up the phone, but no one was there.

I called Stephanie back and told her that Tonya must be OK because she had just tried to call. I was surprised that even one ring got through, and I was certain that she would keep trying to call.

Later I checked the caller ID and saw that at 8:14 AM (9:14 New York time), my wife Glenda had tried to call from school where she teaches. She didn't leave a message. Stephanie called at 8:27 AM. One ring from Tonya's phone at 8:32 AM. At 8:43 AM a man called to say that his wife was with Tonya and she was OK although she was not near a working phone.

I relayed that information to Stephanie, and left a message for Glenda at school. I really needed to get some sleep, but thought that I would turn the TV on for a little while to see what was happening. As I was watching, I saw one of the World Trade buildings collapse, and then a bit later the other one collapsed.

Tonya had been OK earlier, but was she close to the buildings as they collapsed? Had she been hit by debris? Now I was worried. Stephanie was thinking that Tonya may have been inside one of the buildings as indeed she had been earlier. Several people called asking about Tonya. I kept a list of people who called, and promised that I would call them as soon as I heard anything.

Thank God that Tonya was a safe distance away when the buildings fell. Tonya called home at 10:40 AM from Staten Island. She said she had seen some bad stuff, but she was OK. It was a joy to return calls to tell people that Tonya was OK.

What if? We always think of timing and circumstances that could have changed the outcome. Tonya is well aware that she is blessed to be a survivor.

We believe that God has honored our prayers and spared Tonya from a terrible tragedy. Tonya has recovered from her minor injuries. She skinned her knees and hurt her back when she fell while running for her life. We believe that God will help her eventually overcome the emotional trauma as well.

Unseen angels - by Mom:

Tonya realizes she will never be the same. I do believe angels were with Tonya in New York. Her brain recorded the horror of everything that was going on around her. I wish she could have seen the angels that were in that place that day. I believe her angel or angels literally held her hands. Tonya was knocked down right after the second plane hit. People were running everywhere. Once Tonya was knocked down, she could not get up. People just kept pushing her back down as they tried to escape. Tonya said she was on her knees and her hands were on the concrete as she kept trying to push herself up. She doesn't know how she managed to get up. I believe an angel or angels stood her up. Tonya's knees have scars on them from the sores she had as a result of that fall. Why do I think angels held her hands? Even though she kept trying to use her hands to get up, she barely had any scrapes on them and no visible signs on her hands that anything had happened to them a few days later. Maybe there is another explanation for why she skidded on the concrete and there are scars on her knees and not her hands???? I have thought about it often and personally believe her angel protected her hands.

Prayers - by Dad:

Tonya's uncle was already praying before the disaster. The day before 9-11 he had been led to spend 9-11 in prayer and fasting. His story:

"I donít even recall why I felt led to fast that day. It wasnít because I thought something bad was going to happen. But I do think that whatever the reason was, God ordered it so that it would be the same day the terrorists attacked. I was going to turn on the TV to watch a religious show that I had recorded. Before I hit the play button, I saw the live coverage of the disaster. Most of the rest of the day I just prayed about what I was seeing on TV."

Phone notes:

Granny was home all day Tuesday the 11th, but did not receive a call from Tonya. I was home, but the phone only rang once. Tonya didn't know that the phone system feeds callers a ringing sound that really has nothing to do with whether the phone at the other end is ringing. What the ringing signal really means is "we are trying to connect you, please wait." Tonya thought that the phones she was calling rang several times when in fact our home phone rang only once, and Granny's phone never rang.

Several people called inquiring about Tonya. Some of them were crying as I told them that I had not heard from Tonya after the buildings fell. Evidently a lot of people do not know that during heavy call volume, the phone system bogs down and barely works if at all. I knew from my volunteer work with Amateur Radio disaster communications that even if Tonya were fine, I probably would not hear from her for some time. I didn't even try to call her because I figured that I would be tying up the phone for no reason. While I was trying to call her, she might try to call me, and I would miss the call.

Usually incoming calls do not get through to a disaster area, but outgoing calls may have a slightly better chance. That is probably because more people are trying to call in than those who are calling out. I remember that during the Arkansas ice storm of December 2000, we had to wait one or two minutes before we could get a dial tone on our home phone. I think it was the winter of 2002 - 2003 that we had a surprise snow storm in Central Arkansas. I was not surprised that it was almost impossible to make phone calls that afternoon. However, I was disappointed to see that most drivers could not seem to avoid blocking the intersections which in turn caused massive grid lock. That day I was able to use my Sprint cell phone to call my wife's Sprint phone. However, I could not call a land line phone or cell phones on other networks. For more technical details about telephones, see How Stuff Works.

Life after 9-11

The financial district (World Trade Center and surrounding buildings) were much of Tonya's world. That is not only where her work was, but also her bank, her doctor, restaurants, shops, and etc. Even though the World Financial Center buildings are still standing, they remained closed even after she moved away from New York.

Glenda and I took some time off from work to move Tonya away from New York and New Jersey. Fortunately Glenda was able to use sick days, and I was able to use personal days.

We found an inexpensive car for Tonya to drive. In January 2002, Tonya started a new job in Austin, Texas.

Summer 2002: Moving half way across the country does not cure the trauma within. Tonya quickly recovered from some very minor injuries, but who knows how long it will take to recover emotionally.

A year later:

Thank you to all who have prayed for Tonya, we really appreciate the prayers. Tonya had a rough week with all the media coverage of the anniversary of 9-11. She still has some difficulty sleeping -- she has nightmares and even replays of the events as she is awake. Mom refers to it as a panic attack. Continue to pray for Tonya. She has come a long way, but still has a way to go. Tonya is thankful that she has a good job working in her certified area again.

Dad: Unlike the rest of the family, I watched much of the anniversary coverage on TV. I was curious to know more about the events of that day. It was emotional for me -- I was so thankful that Tonya's life was spared. I found it interesting that many of the firefighters want out of the spotlight. It seems that they are inundated with so many gifts and attention that they are just closing the doors of the fire houses.

Perhaps people should express their gratitude by just being kind to their fellow man. When we moved Tonya away from Hoboken, New Jersey, we saw many drivers that could have been a little kinder.

4 years later:

Hurricane Katrina's devestation to the New Orleans area and the coastal areas of Mississippi reminded us that life can be unpredictable. At least there were storm warnings prior to the catastrophe.

Note to pilots and air traffic controllers: you could avoid causing anxiety if you would refrain from flying airplanes low over cities. Just a few days before the 4th anniversary of 9/11, 3 planes flew low over Austin, Texas heading south. They then turned north and flew over the city again. If there is some reason airplanes need to fly low over the city, why couldn't it be done on a weekend when most people are not at work?

5 years later:

Tonya still mostly avoids watching anything on TV about 9/11/2001. She does not want to relive the events, and she thinks that the media is taking advantage of the disaster in order to make a profit and/or advance some political viewpoint. She feels that the media tends to concentrate on certain aspects of the events, and does not present a fair and balanced view of what really happened.

I think it is sad that movie producers feel that they need to produce movies that make the viewer feel that they are living through the horror and terror of 9/11. I think the story needs to be told, but it does not have to include all the graphic gory details and terrible language. I am thankful that someone had put sheets over the bodies laying around WTC soon after the first plane hit. As Tonya made her way away from the disaster, she did not have to view the mangled dead bodies to know what was under those sheets. The story can be told effectively without revealing all the ugly gory details. We still have the decency, respect, and dignity in real life to at least put sheets over dead bodies laying on the ground. It is sad that the TV and movie industry does not have the same kind of decency to leave out the disturbing scenes and bad language, or at least air the shows late at night when children would not be watching.

10 years later:

The media is still reminding us what happened on 9/11/2001, but for most of us, as time passes the memory becomes more distant. We are mostly accepting the increased security measures at the airport as just a normal part of life. We are forgetting that it used to be easier to open a bank account, obtain a passport, or even to travel to certain countries without a passport. Hopefully we are not forgetting that there are many people in the world who hate Amercians, and are willing to sacrifice their money and lives to destroy us. I recently watched a short movie that interviewed several people who did not know about or had never heard of Adolf Hitler. Hopefully we will not need to relearn the lessons of the holocaust. Our culture has undoubtedly been influenced by the events of 9/11/2001, but I suspect that eventually the events themselves will be mostly forgotten by many.

Dad's religious musings:

The events foretold in the book of Revelation (the last book in the Bible) are much worse than the World Trade Center disaster of 9-11-01 -- a mere rainy day in comparison. Will people react to the Revelation events with so much shock, disbelief, and disruption of daily life? Probably more so. Perhaps those end-time events will not take place in my lifetime, but if they do, I expect to be caught away in the clouds with Jesus.

"For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words."

I Thessalonians 4:19-18

Are you ready for the day that Jesus takes his followers to Heaven? Do you want to go too? Just repent and ask God to forgive you of your sins.

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